Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Electronic Textbooks

This post is an expansion of a comment I made on the blog Some Space to Think, specifically on "Blood From a Stone," a blog post about electronic publishing. Someone made the comparison between RPG books and textbooks and wondered what textbooks would be doing electronically in the future.

I work in textbook publishing (originally as an editor for an imprint of Harcourt, now as a freelancer) and I think that RPG books to textbooks is a valid comparison.

However, I haven't seen much progress on that front in the projects I've worked on over the past few years. Most publishers that I've worked with take one of two approaches to e-textbooks: online content distribution through courses presented via proprietary web sites or multimedia CD-ROMs bundled along with a printed book.

The web-based courses typically chunk text content into small pieces and incorporate links to video, audio, databases, and primary sources. In the best cases they can improve utility. But, sad to say, I've never been impressed by the aesthetics or layout.

The CD-ROMs have uniformly sucked. They almost always require the installation of some proprietary software and when that crashes, there's insufficient tech support from the publisher and no local IT for the teacher.

Neither of these approaches is innovative. As it stands now, the textbook business is pretty conservative in terms of technology.

Partly that's because many school boards and teachers are conservative and/or lack the funds to do more than put a few computers in a classroom and subscribe to a proprietary database for research. Partly it's because the cost of producing a technically sophisticated, attractive textbook is pretty high given the skill sets and expertise of their existing staff. Yet people won't pay as much for the electronic version as they will for the hardcopy.

We used to argue that the solution might be offering electronic textbooks as annual subscriptions, with each year providing updates. Fewer big influxes of cash from large book orders balanced out by a steadier revenue stream. But there's some evidence that if you make it too easy to jump publishers, then districts will do so with more regularity. That scares sales people. And you still need to have the display media in place.

The textbook industry is hemorrhaging money and employees right now, so perhaps there is room for a big paradigm shift.

But given that the publishers are conservative and their real customer base (the school boards and teachers who make the buying decisions) tends to be conservative about technology (because in addition to buying it, they have to maintain it*, and I've never seen a school district that had the IT staff it needed) I don't expect any great innovations soon.

If suitable display devices become common enough (such as cheap laptops for every student or some much cheaper version of an iPad), the first thing most publishers will probably do is put out .pdfs of their textbooks, because those are the easiest files for them to create.

*This is a commonly overlooked factor in the quest to put technology in classrooms. Teachers get incredibly frustrated when technology crashes. At the university level, my wife has tech support, but even then she has to have backup plans in place, and that's just to wing a one-hour lecture when the technology fails. Plus to replace a textbook you need a portable device, because the students will need to use it at home. Once it leaves the school anything valuable and electronic is in all kinds of danger.


Aaron DaMommio said...

These are good points. I keep hearing about the lack of support for teachers to use the tech from my wife and a family friend, both of whom are involved in teaching.

Doug said...

Yep, this is a common refrain. And I forgot to mention another key fact; kids are VERY talented at breaking software. If there is something weird they can do either intentionally or by accident, they will find a way to do it.